By Patrick Kamara
When I quit Voice of Tooro FM radio, I joined then-Monitor FM. Soon I became close to the then-Managing Editor of the Daily Monitor newspaper, the late Ogen Kevin Aliro. Kevin was a founding member of the Monitor Publications Ltd that had started operating in a rented basement and risen to become one of the most respected dailies in East Africa. It was worth millions of dollars by the time Nation Media Group of Kenya bought it. So Monitor FM, which later turned into today’s KFM, was part of the Monitor Publications.
I enjoyed covering the Justice Julia Ssebutinde led commission of inquiry into the junk helicopter saga. High ranking bush war heroes would be summoned to appear to this no-nonsense judge to answer charges of corruption. The state had in this deal lost millions of dollars by buying junk Russian fighter jets from Belarus. The saga sucked in President Yoweri Museveni’s own brother; Gen. Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh and the leading businessmen of the time.
I still recall one shrewd businessman, rally ace Emma Kato, who appeared before the commission and in the middle of the questioning he started smiling yet they were asking him tough questions.
Judge Ssebuttidde asked Emma Kato: “Why are you smiling…this is not something to smile about!”
It was Emma Kato’s answer that landed like a bomb.
Emma Kato had looked straight in the face of the petit female judge and said: “….You have an infectious smile my lord.”
We held our breath because were dying of laughter. But Judge Ssebutinde remained focused and soon Emma Kato was sweating professedly as barrage of questions started coming in one after another. It was a gruelling experience that would humble even the most hardened bush war fighters.
But, apart from the commission of inquiry, news reporting in Kampala was kind of dull for me. Up to now I don’t like the press conference kind of generated news, parliament reporting, or court. In most cases such news events lack adrenalin and they bore me. After years of reporting ADF insurgency and the Congo mayhem I was more less a war correspondent and I had always wanted to go back to the field.
One Friday Afternoon, Ogen Kevin Aliro asked whether I was ready to go to Southern Sudan. Kevin would never give you time to prepare if he was focused on doing something. When I said I was ready, he immediately sped on.
“Kamara,” he said, “we are driving to Gulu this evening…we shall connect from there to Nimule.”
I could not believe it. I asked him to allow me go back home and pick essentials and an extra shirt. He refused.
“You will buy a second hand t-shirt in Gulu market…just get your tape recorder and we go.”
This was at the height of the insurgency of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Rsistance Army (LRA) rebels in northern Uganda. Kony had led a fifteen year old war against the UPDF. Villages had been obliterated and over two million people were living Internally Displaced Persons camps.
“The Wizard of the Nile” like the British journalist Mathew Green always referred to him had eluded the Ugandan army for decades.
Drinking Kazini’s booze
The Commander-in-Chief, President Yoweri Museveni, had changed so many commanders on this war front and none was bringing him results. Acholi land had suffered a great deal and the people had witnessed too much terror at the hands of their son, Kony, and his Sudanese backers.
This beautiful land of my in laws (my elder brother Jack marries the young sister to opposition Democratic Party president Norbert Mao, the gorgeous Immaculate) was hurting.
So it was from here that we were headed to report on “Operation Iron Fist” commanded by Maj. Gen. James Kazini who had risen to become army commander.
We set off from Kampala at 4PM and by seven we were crossing Karuma Bridge at the height of the LRA insurgency. That day I really got scared arriving in Gulu at 9pm. exhausted and hungry.
Kevin was a great friend of the Late Maj. Gen. James Kazini the army commander at the time. So it occurred to me we were going for embedded reporting. He had made arrangements to meet Kazini at the fourth Division military headquarters in Gulu.
We drove straight into the military barracks. General Kazini kept us waiting outside the house for almost three hours as he talked on phone with different people, including President Museveni whom I got to know had called from Sweden where he was on an official visit.
This was at the beginning of Operation Iron Fist, a military pre-emptive strike on LRA rebels inside the Sudan. The government in Khartoum had given the Ugandan army a green light to get in and hunt their enemy. Kony and his troops were apparently cornered in the Imatong Mountains. That was the battle zone where we were headed.
After his lengthy phone conversation, Kazini welcomed us in. It was past midnight and I was feeling sleepy. The general was drinking Uganda Waragi and was a bit tipsy.
The two; Kazini and Kevin, were really great friends and all supporters of Sports Club Villa, a local football club. They hugged each other warmly. You could see the burly general squeezing his rather tiny friend. It was like a hug of a bear!
Kevin too enjoyed the bottle and soon booze was flowing as I also sipped a beer. They discussed many things including their families and the local football league. I think I was getting drunk. I am told I started asking Gen. Kazini why he was hiding among the Bahima tribe when he was a Musongora.
Kevin told me that I had asked Kazini why he would never speak Rutooro like the rest of the Basongora including his brothers. His answer was that he had never been exposed to Rutooro like the rest of his brothers and also adding that some of his siblings were multilingual.
He drove us at 2am to the former Uganda government Hotel Acholi Inn where we were meant to sleep. At seven we were back to the barracks ready to fly to Southern Sudan.
The helicopter gunship looked very old and scary. Remember I had been covering stories of the junk helicopter saga and now I was flying in an aircraft that looked terrible in the middle of a warzone.
We sat into the gunship and within no time we were airborne. Kevin looked at the inside of the aircraft and whispered something in my ears in Luganda like “Katonda ya tutwala” meaning we were at God’s mercy. He too was nervous about the flight in such an aircraft! After an hour we landed at Aru Junction over 200 kilometres from the Ugandan border inside the Sudan. Aru is situated at the banks of Kit River in the Kit Valley. There was a small unit of the UPDF soldiers and from here we were meant to head to Kony’s newly established bases in Bin Rwot and Lubang tek. Joseph Kony had given some of these villages Acholi names.
I ate my dry ratio and slept in the command post office there at Aru junction ready for another journey the next morning.
We could not believe when General Kazini suggested that we walk from Aru to Bin Rwot; a distance of about 60kms in the jungle. This was a land heavily infested with the deadly Anti-personnel mines. South Sudan was the epicentre of Africa’s longest and dangerous conflicts. I was afraid of falling into an ambush of LRA rebels, the Equatorial Defence Force EDF, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) or even the Khartoum Sudan Armed Forces (SAF).
Gen. Kazini said the army was sending a smaller helicopter to take a few officers including my editor and a Dutch journalist. This small aircraft known as a Jet Ranger was called Kicwa Ya mbata by the soldiers. It resembled a duck! The soldiers called the big gunship Surambaya…or the ugly face! The Russian made gunship not only ugly but also too deadly in the face of battle.
Kazini’s secret army?
Gen. Kazini had returned to Gulu with the big gunship and we were waiting for the Jet Ranger for the big boys and for the rest of to start the 60km walk to Bin Rwot.
In the unit at Aru, I saw two Bahima boys. They looked 17 or 18 years old. One of them was in a bad shape. He was down with malaria, with a high fever and looked severely dehydrated. He was wearing torn boots that had let in water and his skin had gotten an infection. His toes looked bloated. Despite all that he was meant to carry his gun and belongings and trek with the rest to Bin Rwot.
I was lucky that day. The Jet Ranger was going to make two trips and that gave me an opportunity to fly to Bin Rwot instead of trek. More than ten hours later the soldiers also arrived very tired. The sickly soldier boy from Kiruhura had survived this precarious journey.
I think these boys were part of a group of soldiers that had apparently been recruited by Gen. Kazini without them going through the official recruitment channels. There had been allegations that Kazini was building a personal army within the UPDF. I never verified that claim but I saw recruits specifically from areas of Nyabushozi and Kiruhura that were more less child soldiers.
Bin Rwot had just been attacked by an advanced unit of the UPDF the previous night. The LRA rebels had left in a hurry leaving behind a motorcycle, a tipper lorry, a generator and a Sony video camera. One thing that was common with all the other Kony bases was strictness to cleanliness. LRA would keep an exceptionally neat camp. No wonder Kony’s soldiers never suffered from preventable diseases like cholera. The man is immaculately clean in his base. It is rumoured he enforced hygiene rules ruthlessly if one faulted he would be punished mercilessly.
We had flown here with a former LRA fighter who had been captured in battle. David Ongia was about twenty years old but looked mentally deranged. As soon as he hoped off the plane he started searching for his chicken in what used to be his hut, now smouldering in smoke. Whereas the UPDF thought David Ondia would give them valuable information on the terrain intelligence, I doubt if he did because he looked mentally unstable. The UPDF had burnt all the rebel huts including their stocks of food. Gardens were also destroyed. Kony had clearly been given a heavy blow.
(This is the second last piece in these series. It continues next week).